What is a Strong Faith?
People often say to me that I have a strong faith and let’s be honest, it’s quite a flattering thing to say to a vicar. Sadly, I don’t actually take it as a compliment. I believe that strength of faith is about being able to live with what we don’t know, rather than what we do. People might judge this a weird point of view, or an excuse to be liberal, but I feel it’s fundamental to a healthy spiritual journey with God. And yes, I wish to rescue the word ‘fundamental’ from all those who claim this means blindly and unthinkingly following specific beliefs. As someone who simply believes in God and loves my neighbour as myself, I own the right to be called fundamental.
It’s been a long journey to bring me to this conclusion. Whenever anyone challenged me to consider radical changes to the Church’s teaching, I used to drag my feet, reluctant to give up historic dogmas. For example, there was a time when I would simply have dismissed the idea that God could be female, and it is only recently that I find myself able to live with the creative tension of such a question. I may not be able to answer the question “why can’t God be a woman?” but these days I regard it as a perfectly legitimate question to ask. I happily live with it unresolved, alongside those people who think they have answered it comprehensively one way or another.
At this point, I dearly wish I could say that I have doubted the very existence of God. Actually, I haven’t. I’ve come close to it on a few occasions and I completely understand those who have been brought to a point where they do so. In my own case, all I can say is that I have just been fortunate (blessed) and that God has frequently reminded me that he does exist. It might be an answer to prayer, a person restored, a miracle of new life or just the timely experience of something incredibly beautiful in nature. I have a good and devout friend who often says to me: “there is no such thing as coincidence, only God-incidence.”
That said, theology — the knowledge/study of God — is historically known as the ‘Queen of Sciences’. And I believe it is a very sound scientific approach to regard any proposition as being possible or impossible, subject to being tested.
The problem with testing in matters of faith is that the answers to our questions are yet to be revealed fully. That is why we use the word faith in the first place —especially in what the church teaches is our temporary, physical existence — because so many things just have to be taken on trust. Being tested, on the other hand, is more about how our faith shapes up in time of need and we all pray to be saved from that outcome.
“A strong faith does not mean the same as unquestioning belief.”
Anglicans, like me, are often criticised for being too wishy-washy to be called fundamental, or too liberal to be called ‘Catholic’. This is actually very unfair when we consider the true meaning of the word Catholic, since Anglicans (more than most) simply value unity more than having an identical set of beliefs. Everyone believing the same thing is a myth anyway and if we insist on it, then there will never be a universal or ‘Catholic’ church at all. A bit like heaven, where I really cannot imagine anything worse than spending eternity with a whole host of like-minded people, any concept of a universal church is one which must rejoice in diversity.
Being a vicar in Florence, Italy, I am frequently approached by Roman Catholic priests who wish to become Anglican. One of the biggest things for them to accept, is that whilst there are boundaries and limits to being an Anglican, it also contains a huge spectrum of belief. I have encountered the same confusion with members of many Protestant churches. The key to understanding why this is such a problem lies in how we link what we believe (doctrine) to what is right or wrong (morality). In many churches, the two things are synonymous, whereas for Anglicans they are quite separate. So, for example, just because you don’t believe in the Virgin birth does not, in my eyes, make you evil. We are just different, with different paths to God, within a much broader framework of faith.
Many people greatly value the apparent certainties professed as true by different denominations of Christianity, but spiritually this risks blocking growth. It can either lead to dependency and stagnation in matters of faith or, even worse, to someone developing an uncompromising obsession about converting people to their own way of thinking.
There is a wonderful and very old Persian proverb which I often use to describe the insecurity behind unquestioning belief: “The place where the sun always shines is a desert.” For me, having allowed myself to question, doubt and struggle with things I once just assumed to be wrong, I truthfully believe that my faith has never been stronger at any time in my life than now.
You need a strong faith just to be able to question in the first place and it is clear to me that a strong faith does not mean the same as unquestioning belief. Sometimes, it is the very questioning itself which leads to a strong faith.